Cliff Habian is a Cleveland-based pianist, recording artist, and educator who recently became a published author, too, with the release of his book, Jazz Piano Essentials, by Jamey Aebersold Jazz. At 166 pages, it’s a large, spiral-bound resource; full of jazz piano tips and secrets collected over a lifetime of study and performance. Cliff and I recently discussed its creation, what makes it unique, his formative years, and his use of Finale.
How did you get started in music?
My parents were both very musical. My father sang and played the harmonica and my mother was a pianist. Both could play by ear and my mother also read well. I was often at the piano trying to figure things out, making up little tunes. They always encouraged my imagination to take flight.
My parents also played records constantly (which would run the gamut from opera, show tunes, movie scores and such) but ultimately it was my love of old movies which probably impacted me the most. I was fascinated by film scores and was introduced to many wonderful songs and artists this way. On some level, I had an understanding of the effect that music had in terms of supporting the storyline.
At fifteen, I had my first professional gig and was playing truckloads of tunes from the ’30s and ’40s thanks to my love of film.
Did you receive formal training?
I had a few years of basic lessons (starting at the age of nine) with a woman who taught from her home a few blocks away. She, in turn, sent me to a pianist of repute (here in Cleveland) who was both a classical and jazz pianist. He introduced me to some theory and popular piano styles but did not believe that jazz could be taught so he steered clear of that subject. I studied with him for a couple of years then continued on my own.
My parents were not able to afford to send me to college so it became necessary to get a job. Along with doing gigs, I worked on a farm, saved enough money to buy a car, and then started giving people piano lessons at their homes. Later, while in my twenties, I was able to take some composition classes at the Cleveland Institute Of Music. Not having a degree has always made me feel inferior to those who do but I think that made me work with greater determination. Sometimes not having many advantages can be an advantage.
When did you decide that you wanted to devote your musical life to jazz piano?
This happened the first time I heard Art Tatum. His playing really opened my ears and mind to the possibilities of the instrument. Hearing that kind of technique, harmonic sophistication, and cross-pollination of influences was life-changing. I was also drawn in by his compositional approach and sense of humor.
How did your recording contract with Milestone Records come about?
Throughout my twenties, I composed constantly. This prompted me to start a group solely with the intent to make the original music come to life. There was no goal or objective other than the burning need to create and have fun doing it. We performed a great deal in clubs, opened for other jazz groups (such as Mel Lewis, Dave Brubeck), and found ourselves working a lot and becoming popular locally.
It really took about ten years to compose, rehearse, and record what would eventually become the “Tonal Paintings” album. It includes a composition entitled “Fifth Avenue Nocturne” which opens with traffic sounds which I recorded on a street corner here in downtown Cleveland. You would think it would be easy to do but it’s amazing how discriminating we were when editing the sounds of traffic!
The album was self-produced so I spent a great deal of time spent driving from one record store to next putting cassettes on consignment. That was hard work and very time consuming but it paid off because sales were very good. In fact, the album was selling so well that it prompted a local music distributor to give me a call. He suggested that I should shop for a record label and gave me a list of six record labels to contact.
I sent a copy to each of the six and within two weeks had a phone call from the vice president of Fantasy records (Phil Jones). I will never forget his first words. He said, “I ran across your album on my desk, it is really fresh and different – what do you want to do?”
Well, I was stunned and not knowing what to say, I mentioned that it would be great to have a recording contract. He replied, “I will send a contract to you, you will have it in a couple of days, have a lawyer look it over and get it back to me as soon as you can. Oh, and the album will be released on the Milestone label.”
The album sold well and they advanced me the money to create the second album which was entitled “Manhattan Bridge.” Both albums (as well as ensuing ones) would contain original pieces of descriptive music, each telling a story, painting a picture –program music, basically.
The marriage of art and music has always been the central theme with my compositions. In fact, the album“Tonal Paintings” displays a painting by Childe Hassam which is here at the Cleveland Museum of Art. They were kind enough to loan me the transparency for the album cover. The second album features a painting by the well-known American artist Greg Kreutz entitled “Under The Manhattan Bridge.” Part of the album was recorded in Manhattan and while there I was able to meet Greg and tour his studio.
When did you first begin work on “Jazz Piano Essentials?”
I started working on it over 30 years ago when I observed an art student sitting in a park sketching. It prompted me to start my own sketchbook of musical discoveries. I documented everything, new chord voicings, riffs, patterns, chord progressions, and such. I also had a book for composition. Back then I knew that someday I would create a book designed to help other pianists. Eventually, this became a book filled with ideas and stylistic devices that took me years to discover.
In 2011, I starting transferring 30 years of ideas contained in hundreds of pages of my sketchbooks. A journey of a thousand miles truly begins “one note at a time.”
What was your goal for the book?
I wanted to create a book which my “young self” could have used. As teachers, many of us have students who are quite good in the “traditional classical” setting but who want more. Maybe they are playing some chords, can improvise a little, compose, play by ear, etc., but need help taking things to the next level. In general, they are trying to investigate other branches on the tree and simply need some kind of direction. I wanted to create a resource for these and other players who are looking for other ways of “fattening their style.”
What makes the book unique?
First, let me say that there are many books out there. There never has been, nor will there be one book which is a total panacea. Everyone has something to say and contribute. That being said, I think my book is unique because it is a documented journey, a diary of sorts, of my discoveries as a pianist which cover a rather large amount of time.
Most importantly, I was very judicious in with my ultimate selections of what went in the book. I threw out many things which were not worthy. This book was not a quick act of overt commerce designed capitalize on a wanting market.
Secondly, this book is immediately accessible to musicians of all levels whether a seasoned pro or intermediate. It is not a progressive method book where you must start at the beginning and work your way through. Sometimes people pick up a method book and feel that it is either over their head or too basic. I worked very hard to walk a fine line in order to appeal to many levels of musicianship. It is also unique in that it is for all pianists, not just jazz pianists.
For example, many of my students might be familiar with chords but need some chord patterns for the left hand. I have included many various patterns to make the left hand more interesting. I have examples of what a lead sheet is and how to interpret it. Classically trained pianists will find a great deal of material in this book which will be helpful.
There are many downloadable resources that come with the purchase of the book. These include videos, arrangements, lead sheets, and mp4 recordings of music that appears in the book. I feel that I wrote this book for the right reasons; to help others by sharing knowledge.
What challenges did you have to overcome in the creation of the book?
Well, first I had absolutely no format in mind, so that was a problem. I started it blindly and basically made it up as I went. Eventually, it took on its own shape and form but that took a long time to happen.
The second biggest challenge (which is probably true for many) was in the articulation of my ideas. It is one thing to have knowledge of a subject but another to be able to explain it so that it can be easily understood. All my years of teaching really paid off in this regard. One can be a master of performing but terrible at teaching. It takes practice. It is an art in and of its own.
Ironically, the last challenge was knowing when to stop. Once those creative juices were flowing I couldn’t put an end to it. I would be doing my laps in the pool and suddenly a new chapter or idea would pop into my head. This went on for a long time. But one day, just like Forrest Gump, I simply stopped running. I knew it was done.
Did you work with an editor on both the copy and examples from the book? What was that like?
Yes, the team of people at the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Publishing Company are very, very smart and were extremely helpful and patient. Ultimately, I still had to proof my content and that was brutal. It took a year. Everything people say about editing is true. It can be maddening. You second guess yourself all the time. You think you have caught all the errors and then you find some more. I remember in the month of July 2017 I spent something like 450 hours with editing and proofing. In the end, after submitting my final copy, I lost a night’s sleep over the lack of a courtesy accidental and had to stop them from going to print until I added it.
How did your relationship form with Jamey Aebersold Jazz?
Back in the ’80s, I was the director of the American Music Program at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. I had been using Jamey Aebersold products myself as well as for teaching purposes so I had the school bring his clinic in for a weekend. Unfortunately, I got sick that weekend and was unable to attend. I was very disappointed but the clinic was a huge success.
Ironically, while we were in Paris I stopped in a music store and the first thing I saw was a pile of boxes of Jamey Aebersold products. He has done so much good for musicians all over the world especially with his unique play-along-series! His commitment to perpetuating music education is very well known in the music world and his story is special.
It was obvious to me for a very long time that I would have to try to submit my book to the Jamey Aebersold Publishing Company. When they responded enthusiastically I was thrilled, to say the least!
What was your introduction to Finale?
While I was at the Cleveland Music Settlement, they received a grant for supplies and equipment. The director at that time added Finale to the purchase and that was my first exposure to the program. I spent many nights working with it and still have some of the old charts I created at that time.
It is truly remarkable how far Finale has come over the last few decades. I often think of how much easier my career has been because of Finale. Just something like transposing lead sheets to different keys used to be painstaking by hand and now can be accomplished in seconds!
Have a Finale story or Finale tip to share?
I could share many stories about being under pressure and having to create last-minute charts or assignments and having the day saved by Finale. But the tip I would like to share is this: Often I hear people complain about the learning curve with computer programs in general and I sense their frustration. Like anything worthwhile, the more you work with it, the more user-friendly it becomes.
And if it has been a long time since you have worked with Finale remember it is constantly evolving and becoming more sympathetic to our needs Don’t run away from it – embrace it. Finale is your friend and will open new worlds of potential within your musical endeavors.
Do you have any advice to offer young musicians/pianists/music book authors?
Perseverance is all important. Never give up, follow your heart and persevere! Personally, I have always tried to do what I felt in my heart. I remember a high-profile recording engineer who upon listening to our finished “Tonal Paintings” album said, “It’ll never sell, it’s too eclectic.” It’s funny, because two weeks later I had a record deal!
When I was working on my book I also had a similar experience. Remember that no one cares as much about what you do like you!
Secondly, there is no game plan or track in the world of the arts, which makes it very much unlike most professions. That being said, I firmly believe that if you stay focused and diligent, the universe will step in along the way and help you in many surprisingly different ways.
Lastly, be real! People can discern the difference. I always like that quotation about climbing the mountain not so the world can see you but so that you can see the world.
Thanks again to Cliff for sharing his lifetime of learning with other pianists and for sharing the experience of creating his book with us.